USA TODAY US Edition
In a nod to racial justice, Va. votes to legalize pot
Virginia stood poised to become the first Southern state to legalize marijuana after lawmakers approved a bill aimed in part at ending disparate treatment faced by people of color in the criminal justice system.
The bill, sent to Gov. Ralph Northam, would permit possession and retail sales of pot effective in 2024. Some lawmakers and advocacy groups, however, complained the waiting period needlessly extends unjust treatment. The bill drew a thumbsdown from the ACLU of Virginia.
“The Virginia General Assembly failed to legalize marijuana for racial justice,” the group said in a statement. “Lawmakers paid lip service to the communities that have suffered decades of harm caused by the racist ‘War on Drugs’ with legislation that falls short of equitable reform and delays justice.”
Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said the state has taken an important step toward legalization.
“There’s still a lot of work ahead, but this bill will help to reinvest in our communities and reduce inequities in our criminal justice system,” she said.
Last week New Jersey officially legalized recreational marijuana when Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law three bills putting into effect a ballot question overwhelmingly supported by voters last year. More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia allow recreational marijuana use.
Last year, Virginia lawmakers decriminalized marijuana, making simple possession a civil penalty that can be punished by a fine of no more than $25. Lawmakers also ordered a commission to study and make recommendations for how Virginia should legalize and regulate the growth, sale and possession of marijuana.
The commission focused on policies to redress historic inequities and racial injustice. The study, released in November, showed that from 2010–2019, the average arrest rate of Black people for marijuana possession was 3.5 times higher than the arrest rate for whites.
“I would say that we’re on the path to an equitable law allowing responsible adults to use cannabis,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, the chief sponsor of the Senate bill, after it was passed Saturday.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan expressed disappointment that her proposed amendment to legalize possession on July 1 failed to make the final bill. The amendment would have ended punishments for people with small amounts of marijuana, but House Democrats argued that legalization without a legal marketplace for marijuana could promote the growth of the black market.
McClellan said the state has a “long way to go to enact marijuana legalization in an equitable way that redresses the harms of prohibition on Black and brown communities.”
“The bill we passed today moves the ball forward, but let’s be clear: This is not marijuana legalization,” McClellan said. “It sets up a framework to get us on a path to legalization in 2024.”
Under the legislation, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana will become legal the same day sales begin and regulations will go into effect to control the marijuana marketplace. The legislation will require a second vote from the General Assembly next year, but only on the regulatory framework and criminal penalties for several offenses.